Assorted Science Links (Jan 2020)

In the interest of filling more blog pages and clearing out lots of bookmarks ("that's interesting, I should post that"), here are some assorted science links I've come across recently, with minimal annotation.

Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry

"SLAC scientists invent a way to see attosecond electron motions with an X-ray laser"
Most of chemistry is driven by inter-atom electron behaviours so this research (with earlier advances in "Femtochemistry") makes it possible to watch chemical reactions occurring. (1 attosecond = 10−18 of a second; reactions take an average of about 200 attoseconds, or 0.2 femtoseconds).
"Direct observation of bimolecular reactions of ultracold KRb molecules"

Pretty cool: instead of the usual Femtochemistry approach of trying to speed up equipment to study intermediate stages in chemical reactions, this team cooled it down to almost absolute zero to allow observation of the transient molecules:

"Using ionization spectroscopy and velocity-map imaging of a trapped gas of potassium-rubidium (KRb) molecules at a temperature of 500 nanokelvin, we directly observed reactants, intermediates, and products of the reaction 40K87Rb + 40K87Rb → K2Rb2 * → K2 + Rb2. "

"Inventor of Digital Blood Glucose Meter Wins $2.57 Million From Unilever in UK Court"
Ian Shanks FRS developed the electrode-based glucose meter; he also made major contributions to optoelectronics, especially LCDs.
Reduction in surface climate change achieved by the 1987 Montreal Protocol

Back in the 80s instead of getting science advice from celebrities we listened to scientists. When they said the ozone hole was a problem we all decided to make the necessary changes to fix it.

We are still feeling the benefits of this, from reduced UV causing less skin cancer to a partial mitigation of global warming.

"Increase in CFC-11 emissions from eastern China based on atmospheric observations"

On the other hand, some countries have started to ignore the CFC ban which fixed the ozone hole; northeast China is responsible for half of the global increase in CFC-11 emissions.

"The increase in CFC-11 emissions from eastern mainland China is likely to be the result of new production and use, which is inconsistent with the Montreal Protocol agreement to phase out global chlorofluorocarbon production by 2010."

Nutrition and Medicine

"Low-Fat, Low-Carb Diets Equally Beneficial if Healthy Foods Included"
As found widely elsewhere - whether a diet is "low-fat" or "low-carb" doesn't matter much; the important thing is keeping calories and junk low, and eating mostly vegetables and other healthy foods
A Quest for the Gros Michel, the Great Banana of Yesteryear
Foodie article discussing different varieties of banana. In particular, the story of the "Gros Michel", the most popular banana variety 70 years ago which was nearly wiped out by Panama Fungus in the 50's and was almost universally replaced in western cuisine with the slightly blander "Cavendish" banana - which is now also threatened by the fungus.
Rye and health - Where do we stand and where do we go?

Review of studies where participants had diets with rye vs without rye finds that the inclusion of rye had various minor health improvements (cholesterol, GI, weight loss, inflammatory markers).

As discussed, there is varying control for the effect of fibre or wholegrains in general - given that rye is higher in fibre than whole wheat - does the amount fully account for the increase, or are there specific beneficial components to rye fibre?

Methylmercury Toxicity from a Skin Lightening Cream Obtained from Mexico

Depressing but exemplary case study of the risk of assuming "organic" is safer and better for you than "inorganic". A 47 year old Mexican-American woman used a skin-lightening cream containing (organic) methylmercury iodide on her face, eventually causing likely-permanent nerve damage.

"Two weeks into the hospitalization, screening blood and urine tests detected mercury concentrations exceeding the upper limit (UL) of quantification... [Over 500x normal] ... Despite prolonged chelation therapy, the patient remains unable to verbalize or care for herself, requiring ongoing tube feeding for nutritional support."

Remembering Karen Wetterhahn
If the above seems extreme, on June 8, 1997, Professor Karen Wetterhahn - a specialist in toxic metals - died from complications of mercury poisoning months after spilling a few drops of dimethyl mercury onto her latex glove.

Parascience and Pseudoscience

When Quantum Goes Woo
From The Infinite Monkey Cage BBC Podcast - Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, et al discuss why Quantum Physics seems to be so appealing to alt-med gurus and "quantum" as a metaphor vs actual science.
What Makes Science a Science?

Another one with Cox and Goldacre, this could alternatively be "Science 101" or "Science vs Parascience". This should be compulsory reading/listening for anyone interested in science, engineering, sociology/economics or other parasciences.

Goldacre: "I think something interesting and important and dangeous happens when you try to use the tools of science to explore an area where your results are often different depending on the methodological approach that you take or simply because of the noise in the data... That acts as a cloak that protects people engaged in bad behaviour"

"Smart People Believe Weird Things"

An old blog post/book chapter by Michael Shermer - does a good job of explaining how confirmation bias contributes to pseudoscientific beliefs; how teaching science as a database of facts (e.g. "Oxygen has 8 electrons") doesn't help students detect pseudoscience, and teaching how science works as a process is more important:

"To attenuate these paranormal belief statistics, we need to teach that science is not a database of unconnected factoids but a set of methods designed to describe and interpret phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation."

Brian Cox: it is not acceptable to promote bad science
His acceptance speech for the IOP Presidents Medal. At ~9:50: "We don't have homeopathic aircraft that run on the 'memory' of petrol, environmentally friendly as they are. There is a reason we don't use Reiki to fix aerial engines. Faith based aviation doesn't work."